Many Americans know the basic outlines of the Gunpowder Plot, the failure of which our British cousins celebrate. (As an aside, can you think of any other country where they whoop it up over something that DIDN'T happen?) Guy Fawkes and an increasingly large number of Catholic conspirators rented a building with access to an undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords, and managed to smuggle twenty barrels of gunpowder into the area. Fear of the plague postponed the opening of Parliament from February to the end of October, and in that time the plotters brought in an additional sixteen barrels. Parliament was set to open on November 5th; less than ten hours before the ceremony, Fawkes was caught emerging from the undercroft, as the folks song goes, "with a dark lantern, and a burning match."
What foiled the plan? On October 30th, Lord Monteagle, a Catholic peer, was advised in an anonymous letter not to attend because "they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament..." The warning probably came from conspirator Francis Tresham, Monteagle's brother-in-law. Monteagle, who had been brushed by a conspiracy five years before and had narrowly escaped imprisonment, sensibly turned the letter over to the king's chief minister.
One letter. No wonder it's so irresistible to ask what might have happened if Tresham hadn't liked his brother-in-law. For the 400th anniversary of the plot, a recreation of the Parliament building as it existed was built and blown up with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. The force of the blast shattered seven-foot wide walls and would have killed everyone within a 100 meter radius - including the king, the queen, the heir to the throne, the peerage, the political elite and the leaders of the church.
The shock waves through history could have been enormous. The Catholic minority would have been wiped out in England. Charles I would have been raised by staunch Protestants, possibly averting the English Civil War and the subsequent wars in Ireland. An Anglican church divorced from any of its Catholic roots might have been more accepting of Evangelicals, so the Puritans would have had no impetus to move to the cold and hostile land of Massachusetts. The French could have pressed their advantage in the New World, and up here in La Maine, I might be drinking cafe and eating beignets for ma petit dejeuner. Meanwhile, in Britain, President Theresa May would be celebrating The Fifth of November, marking the beginning of the revolution against the absolute monarch James V in 1795. Can you tell I love alternate history? Can you tell I wish I had time to write this book?
Reds, what's the historical moment you think might have changed the world? And how tempted are you by alternate history?
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I love alternate history...that Robert Harris book about what would have happened if the Nazis won, and The Man in the High Castle, and even TIMELESS. In that TV show, a bad guy time machines back in time to change history (for his own nefarious purposes, somehow) and our heroes have to follow him to make sure it stays the same. Maybe...women getting the vote when they did?
JULIA: Hank, the Robert Harris book is FATHERLAND. One of THE central canon of alternate histories. But women's suffrage? I never considered that...
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hank, what a horrible thought! But certainly interesting from a fictional viewpoint.
HANK: But Debs, what if they had gotten it--earlier? Hmmm...see what I mean?
DEBS: Oh, definitely! But, Julia, I LOVE this. I'll be in the Cotswolds tonight, where there will be bonfires, I'm sure. And my book is going to be set around Guy Fawkes day!!!
JULIA: Wonderful, Debs. It seems like a night ready-made for either wickedness or romance, doesn't it? Carola Dunn had a Daisy Dalrymple mystery - GUNPOWDER PLOT - where the murder takes place on Bonfire Night during a house party in 1924. It was a wonderful setting.
RHYS BOWEN: I always think back with nostalgia to Guy Fawkes Day because it was a big thing when I was a child. The excitement of making the guy, putting him on top of the bonfire and then setting it alight, as well as all the fireworks, the hot sausages, the baked potatoes. It was one of the highlights for a small girl. And I never once thought of poor Guy Fawkes who was essentially a decent man. I married into an ancient aristocratic Catholic family and the Catholics were certainly persecuted until a century ago. John's grandmother was born at Sutton Place which had priests hiding holes and a secret passage to the chapel so that the priest could say mass.
But an event that changed history to me would be Hitler's decision to turn his attention to invading Russia in 1941. If he had pursued his quest to invade England he would probably have succeeded. England was poorly equipped compared to the German force. I'm sure the population would have fought hard, but who knows what might have happened!
JULIA: Rhys, there's a rivetingly creepy book by CJ Sansom - DOMINIUM - based on the premise that Neville Chamberlain was succeeded by Lord Halifax, an appeaser, instead of Churchill, which leads to Britain becoming a client state of the Third Reich by the early fifties. It's really good; Ross and I both read it and enjoyed it.
Dear Readers, please chime in with your thoughts on Guy Fawkes, alternate histories, bonfires, baked potatoes or anything else that catches your fancy!